Advancing our understanding of autism spectrum disorders
As a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Autism Research Program at Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California Division of Research, Lisa Croen, PhD, conducts research studies on autism spectrum disorders. She seeks to identify risk and causal factors for autism spectrum disorders and to understand the biological mechanisms underlying the development of these disorders in order to guide intervention and prevention strategies. At the same time, she’s evaluating the delivery of services for individuals with autism (early identification, screening, diagnosis, treatment, and healthcare utilization) in order to improve outcomes.
Q: If you had to think back, is there a single moment in your life that sparked your interest in what you’re doing now?
I’ve always been interested in health issues surrounding mothers and children and in behavior and child development. I was working as a perinatal epidemiologist, studying structural birth defects — such as cleft lip and spina bifida — and factors around the time of pregnancy that may be related to these, when my nephew was diagnosed with autism. This was in the late 1980s. In the early- to mid-1990s California was experiencing a huge increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism and seeking state services. These three themes all came together for me and I launched my first study on autism in 1996.
Q: People may think we know a lot about autism, but what don’t we know?
We know that autism has a strong genetic component and we know that non-genetic factors such as the environment also play a role. But we don’t know what causes autism in the vast majority of cases. We know that some behavioral interventions can ameliorate autism impairments for some individuals with autism, but we don’t currently have other treatments that target the core social and communication impairments that affect people with autism.
Q: What kind of research are you doing and why do you think it’s important?
I am doing population-based epidemiologic and health services research. In order to gain a better understanding of what causes autism, how to treat individuals with autism, how to improve outcomes among people with autism, and how to prevent autism, it’s important to study large groups of people who are representative of the population with autism so that we can apply our study findings more generally.
Q: In your free time, what do you like to do?
I am a musician and love to get together with friends and jam. I also love the outdoors and spend time hiking in the beautiful parks all around the Bay Area. I am an adventurer and love traveling to new and familiar places, and I love spending time alone reading a great novel or catching up on the news.
Q: April is Autism Awareness Month. Any advice or tips?
Be understanding of people who may be behaving in unfamiliar ways. Be kind.